Filling the skills gap in infrastructure occupations; investing in technical education to give students the best chance to succeed

The nation faces a shortage of infrastructure workers, a result of expanding demand  as the current workforce ages and experiences high turnover, according to a new report from The Brookings Institution. The analysts, Joseph Kane and Adie Tomer, define infrastructure broadly.

Infrastructure investment represents a key priority in this respect, whether aimed at boosting transportation access, increasing broadband adoption,strengthening freight connectivity, or improving water quality.

Infrastructure helps facilitate the exchange of information, drive production, and deliver resources, spanning multiple sectors of the economy and serving as a foundation to long-term growth. Yet, infrastructure’s prominent role in the labor market is perhaps one of its most overlooked strengths. Too often framed in terms of short-term construction projects, infrastructure activities involve a considerable depth and breadth of employment opportunities across the country.

The analysis dovetails neatly with our priorities for shared prosperity, particularly our concerns with education (Achieve) and transportation (Connect). The Brookings research says,

Almost 3 million infrastructure workers will need to be replaced over the next decade, requiring significant numbers of new hires in nearly every market across the country.

To meet the demand and 

To accelerate workforce development efforts, policymakers, educators, employers, and workers not only need to focus their attention on the broad array of occupations involved in infrastructure, but they also need to better understand the specific areas of knowledge required to fill these positions. In most cases, infrastructure workers rely on higher levels of knowledge in disciplines that extend far beyond building and construction in order to move goods, serve passengers, and coordinate a range of other activities.

The emphasis on career and technical education implied by the Brookings analysis is also the focus of a Bloomberg View commentary by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon. They write,

We will not solve the critical challenges of poverty, underemployment, wage stagnation and bulging prisons unless we get serious about investing in effective programs that prepare kids who are not immediately college-bound for middle-class jobs…

About 70 percent of young Americans, and 83 percent of blacks and Hispanics, do not earn a bachelor’s degree by age 29. Most who attend community college don’t graduate. And without having gained career-focused skills in high schools, many are getting left behind.

The commentary mentions new programs being supported by JPMorgan Chase and Bloomberg as models of innovation and creative public private partnership. Bloomberg and Dimon conclude,

Long-term, broad-based economic growth depends on a strong and expanding middle class that is open to all Americans, not just college graduates. That is only possible if we reinvent vocational programs so that they are aligned with macroeconomic trends, growing local industries and jobs that offer opportunities for advancement.

We’ve written before of the importance of career and technical education, citing Washington’s leadership in STEM education, Running Start, and other programs supported by our state’s corporate leaders. Yet, as our Winter Opportunity Washington Scorecard found, we still fall short in many key education metrics. Our Achieve Spotlight reports,

Washington’s Achieve ranking falls to 21. Our state improved in 4th grade reading and high school graduation, declined in 8th grade math, and maintained its position in STEM degree production. Connecticut, Montana, and Wyoming moved ahead of Washington on the Achieve metrics. Our decline in relative performance is cause for concerns…

In many respects, Washington is a national leader in innovation, with an economy that marks significant advancement in manufacturing, agriculture, retail, and technology. Maintaining that position requires improvement in education performance. 

Taken together the Bloomberg and Dimon commentary and the Brookings report reinforce the Opportunity Washington message of expanding opportunity through education.By 2020, 70 percent of Washington jobs will require postsecondary education or training. Preparing our students for these opportunities requires high-quality education at every level. That reality represents a tremendous opportunity for today’s students, if they get the education they need to succeed.